People pose for a picture with their dogs in the park during a city-wide dog day. People pose for a picture with their dogs in the park during a city-wide dog day. People in Tel Aviv pose for a picture with their dogs in the park during a city-wide dog day. (Photo: Gil Cohen-Magen / AFP/Getty Images)

Cavemen – they're just like us! New discovery finds ancients kept dogs as pets

Archaeologists uncovered latest finding while examining centuries-old canine teeth.

Nowadays, when we picture the classic house pet, we conjure images of a dog lounging around on the sofa or playing fetch with its owner in the backyard. But how long has this bond existed?

Archaeologists have long assumed that cavemen who owned dogs used them for utilitarian purposes – helping with hunting, guarding the house and so on. Since PetSmart and dog parks were not invented yet, dogs were assumed to be of the working variety with not much time for naps on their owner's lap.

But new evidence has emerged that shows perhaps the canine-human relationship at that time in history was a little more evolved. According to a new study by a team of European scientists, cavemen likely considered dogs as pets, developing an emotional attachment to the animals and caring for them in their time of need.

They discovered this in a very intriguing way. Previous research of dog burial sites in Israel and Germany have shown a relationship between man and dog for nearly 15,000 years. For the new study, the scientists looked closer at the dental records of these dog skeletons. What they discovered was that these particular dogs had been sick for a while before they died. And the only way for the dogs to have survived as long as they did after becoming ill was if they were getting nurturing aid from a human.

The teeth of the younger dog from the grave, with traces of the morbilli virus (canine distemper). The teeth of the younger dog from the grave, with traces of the morbilli virus (canine distemper). (Photo: Pütz Martin, Jürgen Vogel, Ralf Schmitz (LVR-LandesMuseum Bonn)

"We suggest that at least some Late Pleistocene humans regarded dogs not just materialistically, but may have developed emotional and caring bonds for their dogs, as reflected by the survival of this dog, quite possibly through human care," the researchers wrote.

"Without adequate care, a dog with a serious case of distemper will die in less than three weeks," explained veterinarian Luc Janssens, who co-authored the study. This dog was clearly seriously ill but survived another eight weeks, which would only be possible if it had been well cared for. "That would mean keeping it warm and clean and giving it food and water, even though, while it was sick, the dog would not have been of any practical use as a working animal."

This new research backs up a 2011 science paper that showed ancient dogs in Russia were respected and purposefully buried. Archaeologists see this as proof that these ancient people saw dogs as having souls – as "persons" in a way that was different from other animals. Indeed, a 1977 discovery at an archaeological site in northern Israel found the skeleton of an elderly Natufian man and his puppy buried together under a house that could be dated to about 12,000 years ago.

Perhaps it was a harbinger of that famous saying: All dogs go to heaven.

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